BRATTLEBORO — When a representative of a local downtown business came to The Commons' newsroom with a letter commenting on issues and concerns affecting downtown Brattleboro - but with the stipulation that it be published without its signatories' names - I did not expect that piece would ever see print.
But it obviously did two weeks ago, to the chagrin of many in the community. This decision also flies in the face of everything I usually believe is normal and healthy about public discourse and a newspaper's role in it.
Considering that more readers have reacted to this decision than to just about anything else I've put in this newspaper over the past 11 years, it seems relevant to shine a light on how I decided to run that piece.
I recognize that even with this additional context, some readers will still not agree with my reasons or judgment. That's OK. I did not and do not expect consensus about this particular decision.
So here's the story of how and why we broke with our longstanding policy.
* * *
First, let's be clear. Provocative content and the anonymity issue aside, this Open Letter was not our usual contribution.
As many readers have correctly pointed out, if one business owner were to come to us with the same letter as a first-person Viewpoint and expect it to be published without a name behind it, we would never let that happen. And to be honest, that was my first instinct.
But when the merchant who came to us originally sent us more names in rapid succession, it became apparent that this one person's Viewpoint. It was a staking of a position, one that had been taking shape in quiet conversations on the street, in local restaurants, in whispers in the bleachers, and in a closed meeting of downtown businesses.
I had been vaguely aware of this growing frustration, exhaustion, and rage - not through any actual conversations, but through the rumor mill.
To me, the sheer numbers and range of people signing on to this letter pushed it into the realm of a source document whose presence would be of significant interest to those who care about these issues - even those who, frankly, would find some of the characterizations of the problem problematic.
To me, the piece seemed reasonable and compassionate - at least so much more so than the vicious, dehumanizing, cruel comments and name calling that this issue all too often evokes.
I thought that getting some of these concerns out into the sunlight would at least be helpful for framing an actual public discussion.
* * *
To address the withholding of names, let's start with something else: How our reporters have often faced reluctance or outright refusal by many members of the business community to describe their world to us, to let us and our readers understand how the issues surrounding the opioid crisis affect them, their employees, their customers.
In some of our previous attempts, we have failed to get a complete toehold on this story. That creates incomplete coverage.
In the meantime, I have winced as I've seen a member of the business community get absolutely pilloried in an online forum for even suggesting that there is a place and a need for a discussion about how to improve an environment that scares off potential customers.
If memory serves, she was called a “horrible human being” for not having sufficient empathy.
Many merchants have put everything they own into their enterprises, and they are operating on the slimmest of margins. Their own livelihoods depend on their success.
Creating and nurturing a downtown that is hospitable and welcoming to all is not unreasonable. Yes, all. That was the overarching point of the original letter.
Absolutely nothing about running a store or a restaurant is easy. Our downtown merchants are prime examples of one of my favorite sayings: a definition of an entrepreneur is someone who works 80 hours a week for the privilege of not working for someone else for 40.
Add in the challenges of setting up shop in a town with notoriously high rents, the often-predatory zeal with which parking is enforced, and the continuous and growing challenge from a clientele who can much more easily and affordably buy goods online.
Call me a raving capitalist, but I love that Brattleboro has an active and vibrant downtown. (Have you worked in a dead downtown? I have.) Call me idealistic, but I refuse to think that practical solutions to the challenges of the environment downtown have to be a zero-sum game.
But as long as it is exactly that way for so many people, I viscerally understand what drove the writers' original request for withholding names. Of course, I would have preferred otherwise.
So, with some apprehension - and by no means convinced that I was making the right decision - I said yes.
* * *
Now, here's another important question. Names or no names, what was to be gained by putting that message out into the world?
For one thing, I've heard a lot more conversation about the issues that piece raised. I have been happy to see activists who are furious about the views expressed in the letter plan meetings to help address and confront these issues and these perceptions.
For another thing, some merchants have been moved to identify themselves as people who did not sign the letter. The letter has helped other merchants crystallize and affirm their own values and bring these issues into the forefront of their own discussions.
Finally, I genuinely hope that this recent conversation will continue to open up some lines of reporting for our investigative duo, MacLean and Shanta Lee Gander, who have put more than a year's worth of work in reporting and writing a Special Focus that will hit print soon.
Some of the conversation and correspondence they have received will inform their last surge of reporting. Rest assured that although the Open Letter writers stand behind their statements and affirm them as firsthand experiences, we will be examining them with new vigor and scrutiny as we look at the real-world economics undergirding why people engage in flying signs.
In the end, the piece is stimulating public discussion and moving the conversation forward - albeit messily and with some distraction and dissatisfaction.
That's still far better than no public discussion at all.
* * *
If I had to do this over again, would I make the same decision?
I think the answer would still have to be yes - with some reservations. I certainly would have worked harder on encouraging some sort of public attribution. Our role in withholding the names took too much oxygen out of the room at the expense of the difficult issues in the letter.
Regardless, one thing is for certain: Withholding names will not be a precedent. I've done so only a handful of times in my tenure here, and I don't expect to repeat this experience anytime soon.
That leads me to one final thought that doesn't deal with anonymity so much as it does with the stance that such pieces are hurtful to people who are truly suffering and thus such words should never be published.
The last thing in the world I want is be hurtful to people. Ever.
But this is a newspaper. You need to expect that at some point you will almost certainly find some things disagreeable, upsetting, or hurtful - particularly in this Voices section, and particularly with the abundance of heartbreak that has hit too many people in Windham County in recent years.
More than ever, we need to cultivate an environment where we don't treat different and sometimes agonizingly contradictory perspectives dismissively.
We must feel empathy for people who are in the grip of opioid dependency and perpetrate crimes. At the same time, we can't discount the experience of people who have the sanctity and safety of their homes violated by theft.
We must be moved to action by people who have nowhere to go, nowhere to sleep, in the summer months. That doesn't mean that it's unreasonable to expect people using the parking garage not to answer the call of nature in public.
We must be willing to confront opinions and perspectives that don't bend neatly to the contours of our presumptions and sacred cows. It is telling to me that some of the harshest critics of the behavior described in the Open Letter are members of the very same vulnerable populations that so many of you have so eloquently defended.
We must find ways to raise these issues without blanket accusations of “othering” people in need when their behavior sets itself as something other than a cry for help and for empathetic solutions.
We must have these conversations with candor in a way that ultimately elevates us as a community, recognizing that these conversations can and should be measured in terms of forward motion in the larger scheme of things.
And above all, we must dispense with universal generalization. Advocates for people experiencing homelessness can and should certainly speak with authority on some obvious general truths. But if we've learned anything over the past few years, it's this: people who are members of vulnerable populations are people, with all the imperfections, contradictions, and diversity of the human experience.
We must not make the leap that describing behavior is denigrating entire classes of vulnerable people. Too often, we get mired in verbal convolutions and instinctive, protective reactions from people with the best of intentions.
We can't confront problems if we can't talk about them. We can't bully people into pretending problems don't exist. And we can't use humanitarianism as a cudgel to rationalize behavior that is not OK.
With all this in mind, my job as your editor is to cultivate this Voices section as a place where ideas, public policy, perception, awareness, and understanding can get hammered out - sometimes imperfectly, sometimes awkwardly.
That takes time. That takes participation.
And sometimes, that takes improvisation. It takes the willingness to try something different.
And in the end, I'd rather try something different in these pages and risk spectacular failure if there's even a chance it can be helpful.